The Edinburgh Fringe is the world’s biggest arts festival. It’s also hell

The horror! The horror! Image: Getty.

The 70th Edinburgh Fringe Festival kicks off this Friday. So what better time to examine how this arts and cultural hub absolutely annihilates one of the UK’s loveliest cities?

If you’re a fan of theatre, comedy, getting pissed up on London prices and watching men eat fire on the street, then you probably already know about the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Globally renowned and hugely popular across Britain, the Fringe is the world’s largest arts and culture festival.

The Fringe celebrates performance art by playing host to acts from around the world, and even if you’ve never been you’re probably aware that it’s a major happening that draws in large crowds and big tourist numbers. It’s fun, it’s diverse (in its acts, at least; obviously not its audience) and good news! You don’t even have to leave the country to get to it.

What most people don’t know about the festival, however, is that it takes what is, usually, an adorable, Harry Potter-esque city and turns it into a living, breathing tourist mob monstrosity every single year.  Despite Edinburgh being, essentially, just a very, very large town, the Fringe forces it to contain an unholy number of events in a relatively short period of time, and house enough people to make the whole city look like Oxford Street. Although people know what the Edinburgh Fringe is, they don’t know what the Fringe does to Edinburgh.

Let’s start with some facts. Edinburgh, despite being the capital of Scotland, is not a big city. The population of the local authority area barely creeps above 500,000; look at the urban area alone, and it doesn’t even reach that. It also hosts these half a million people in only 100 square miles, making it incredibly compact. This is especially evident when you realise that

a) most of the city is contained between Morningside and Leith, and

b) a lot of that area is green space, forcing people to live even closer together.

And, like any normal city, it has shops, parks, workspaces, bars, concert venues and people who, you know, have to live their daily lives there.

Most of Edinburgh Image: Google Maps.

This is what Edinburgh looks like during the Fringe. These are some of its more than 300 venues; not all of them make it onto the map below.

Image: The Fringe Society/Google Maps.

As I’m sure you’ve now gathered, this is fucking insane. For a city that’s already small, and whose residents are already packed in like sardines, this is a hellish onslaught of events and pop-up venues that congest the city to a near standstill in its centre.

The reason why the Fringe has to fill up seemingly every free inch in the entire city with a venue? Because Edinburgh’s population more than doubles during the Fringe. Last year’s ticket sales hit approximately 2.5m across its 3,000+ shows in 300+ venues; these figures didn’t even include the attendance at non-ticketed free shows, of which there were 643. This means that a city that already is a bit close for comfort for 500,000 suddenly becomes home to over 1m in literally a matter of days.

Even more insane? The ticket sales are only outdone by the World Cup and the Olympics. That’s right: the Edinburgh Fringe is the third highest ticketed event in the entire world.

The cherry on top, the thing that makes the Fringe extra hellish for the people who live in Edinburgh all year round, is the length of time it runs for. It’s not just for a day or two: you can’t just hide in your flat for the weekend, or grin and bear it because it’ll all be over soon. Nor is it a year-long event, like a public art installation – something where there’s a lot on, but hey, people come and go and it relieve the burden.

No, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival lasts the entire month of August, with events preceding and succeeding the festival. All that means the mayhem last for, effectively, the entire summer.

Oh, god. Image: Ben Snooks/Creative Commons.

For a tourist, I get why this festival has so much appeal. It's busy with people and things to do  at literally all hours of the day and it goes on long enough that it can turn into a proper (albeit, wet) holiday.

But imagine the reality for an local. Edinburgh is a small and pretty quiet place, and most people get everywhere by foot. Even if you're having to commute from one end of the city to the other (say, from Newington to Stockbridge, a good 45 minute walk), you'll pass the dead centre of the city and most of its busiest streets (George Street, Princes Street, The Royal Mile) with relative ease. You won't get stuck behind people who don't know how to walk in cities, because there's plenty of space. The main streets will be only mildly humming at peak hours. Even if you decided to commute by bus (20 minutes) you'll rarely get stuck in traffic.

But then comes the Fringe. Not only is there gridlock on the roads on a constant loop, but most of its streets make Oxford Street on Boxing Day look like a pedestrian’s wet dream. The human walls are also just as unrelenting as the road traffic, lasting from midday until about three in the morning, with a big heave again at five as the clubs let out and the final shows finish. And this happens not just for one day or one weekend or one week; this is a Sisyphean punishment for Edinburgers that lasts for an entire month. All this to the backing track of a tourist-luring bagpipe on every corner. 

To be fair to the Fringe, Edinburgh is never without tourists. It has a surprisingly good food scene, excellent historical attractions (see: castles, underground streets), and the whole place looks like it’s straight out of an American fever dream of what a Disney-fied Scottish city would look like. But the Fringe is a uniquely agonising tourist experience for Edinburgh locals. So for those of you travelling up from the Home Counties, try to keep your slow walking and intrusive, old building photograph taking to a minimum. 


The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.

And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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